Expensive, But Worth It

A year ago today, Labor Day 2005, one week exactly after the landing of Hurricane Katrina, 80 percent of New Orleans proper was still flooded, workers were still rescuing people, and the city was still shut down. The western half of the metro area, Jefferson Parish, was allowing residents to enter for a few hours to check on their property and pick up a few things for the lengthy evacuation. They had to be out by 6 pm.

Neil and Julie drove all night from North Mississippi where we had all landed and got in line on U.S. 51 just north of LaPlace in order to be among the first to re-enter. They ended up sitting for hours in a long line of traffic, then about daybreak the police removed the barriers and everyone began to move. I came in on Wednesday of that week for a few hours. No electricity anywhere, trees down everywhere, and a few neighbors who had stayed through the ordeal reflecting shell-shock on their faces.

Today, Monday, some residents are at work on their houses, some are having cookouts, some are out of town visiting mom and dad, and a few are involved in community celebrations. Mostly, things are quiet. Hardly a wave is stirring in the eastern Caribbean. We like it that way.

For three days next week–September 11-13–some friends of ours are staging a retreat for pastors and spouses of our worst-damaged churches. AMG International of Chattanooga, the missionary organization that publishes Pulpit Helps magazine, a monthly that has run my articles and cartoons for an entire generation, is working with Hoffmantown Baptist Church of Albuquerque and the First Baptist Church of Long Beach, Mississippi, in hosting a free recovery session at a hotel in Mobile. I’ve sent out an e-mail to our affected pastors locally (those with internet capability). If you know of someone this description fits (pastor of either destroyed or severely damaged churches), have them contact me if they’ve not received the invitation.

When John Barry speaks about the levee system, rivers, and wetlands of this area, pay attention. No one knows it better than he. “Rising Tide” was his history of the Mississippi River flood of 1927, a best-seller some 5 years ago, but more than that, the book recounted the ups and downs of attempts to control this great waterway over the centuries. Barry is Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier Universities.

An article John Barry published recently in USA Today was reprinted in Monday’s Times-Picayune. “Expensive, But Worth It: Years of man-made mistakes must be fixed to save New Orleans” is the lead. Briefly, Barry says the situation in our city is the result of three factors which benefited the rest of the nation but doomed New Orleans.

1) The Corps of Engineers lined the riverbank with hundreds of miles of concrete or riprap (whatever that is) from Minneapolis south in order to keep it from collapsing into the river. This kept the water flowing for shipping, but it also deprives the river of millions of tons of soil that historically built the land farther south.

2) Then, since the river still carries enough sediment to block and clog the mouth, the federal government built jetties extending 2 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico. This keeps the channel clear, but it deprives the coast from Texas to Mississippi of added soil needed to maintain the ground above sea level. This is what causes this city to drop below sea level, Barry says.

3) However, these forces alone are not the biggest problem. That would be the offshore drilling for oil and gas. The production from these wells accounts for 30 percent of the U.S. output. In order to service these wells–to get to them and work them–the oil industry dug 8,000 miles of canals and pipelines through the coastal marsh, the wetlands you’ve heard so much about. The result is that the ocean saltwater encroaches further and further inland, eating away the land.

Barry says 2,000 square miles of Louisiana’s coast–much of it barrier islands and some of as solid as the land just below Cape Girardeau–has melted into the sea. Most of this has taken place in the last 50 years.

What’s the big deal about the wetlands, you ask. The land between us and the Gulf of Mexico used to protect us from hurricanes. When a storm goes over land, it weakens. By the time a storm would arrive at New Orleans, it would have lost a lot of its strength. These days, with less and less land mass south of us, that is no longer the case.

Barry makes three suggestions to remedy the problem. As his heading implies, it will be “expensive, but worth it.”

1) Build levees that will survive overtopping.

2) Build storm surge barriers such as the Netherlands, Great Britain, Italy, “and even Providence,” have.

3) “Step three–the most important and most expensive–is restoring the coast. The river still carries enough sediment that, directed to the right places, it can provide significant protection to the city, even with the expected rise in sea level. Restoring the coast will cost an estimated $14.1 billion–spread over 25 to 30 years. By contrast, Iraq costs $6 billion a month.”

Where is the money to come from? Barry says, “Giving Louisiana the same share of tax revenue from its offshore wells that New Mexico, Wyoming and other states get from wells drilled on federal land would cover 100 percent of the cost. Those states justify getting their share because of the environmental and infrastructure costs that drilling causes, yet their costs are insignificant compared with Louisiana’s.”

Barry adds, “More important, protecting New Orleans is the classic example of something we can’t afford not to do.” He concludes, “It isn’t just New Orleans that needs it; the national economy needs it.”

On another subject, the World War II Museum here–formerly known as the D-Day Museum–is welcoming a new addition to its splendid exhibits, a C-47 airplane. Before they remove its wings and tow it through the city and hang inside the museum, they landed it at Lakefront Airport this weekend and invited the public. Neil and I drove out Saturday morning and walked around it. This lovely “gooney bird” is quite the veteran.

On June 6, 1944–D-Day–this very plane dropped members of the 82nd Airborne into Picauville France. On September 17 of that year, it dropped members of the 101st Airborne into Zone A during Operation Market-Garden. Then, on December 23, it was part of a re-supply mission to the 101st during the Battle of the Bulge. On March 24, 1945, this plane participated in Operation Varsity, the Rhine Jump. After the war, it flew passengers for Finnish Air Lines. In 1976, it became a movie star, flying parachutists for the movie “A Bridge Too Far.” Later, it was sold to a freight company in Vermont. Recently, Lulu and Paul Hilliard of Lafayette, Louisiana, purchased the plane when it was advertised on–where else?–eBay.

The old man standing behind me at the airport looked like he might have ridden this plane 62 years ago. “I made 14 jumps,” he told me, “and the last one was the luckiest.” He explained, “I broke my ankle on that one, and it kept me from going in on D-Day. I might have lost my life. I got there a few weeks later.”

This morning early, I walked a mile on the levee with George Gravois, 86-year-old neighbor, retired from the telephone company, and veteran of the Big War. He was a crew member on a PBY and stationed in Rio Janerio much of the war. George said, “You know, Joe, twice over the years some young fellow has come up to me and stuck out his hand and thanked me for what I did for this country.” Nothing more. That’s all George said. I said, “How did that make you feel?” “Aw, it felt great. That’s how it felt.”

I said, “George, let me be number three. Thank you for what you did for me and millions of Americans. In fact, for the whole world.”

We’re already saying thank you to the many thousands who’ve been to New Orleans to help us over the past twelve months. Perhaps the day will come when we will single out a group of legislators and government leaders to thank for doing what it took to make this part of the world safe again.

It will be expensive, but worth it.

1 thought on “Expensive, But Worth It

  1. Thank you for shaking the hand of George Gravois. For about six years now, my brother Pat Blackman of Boerne, TX., has made it his mission to shake the hand of every WWII veteran and thank that person for his/her part in preserving the free America we enjoy today. Pat inspired me to do the same. I recently had the opportunity to thank my new neighbor, Oscar Higginbotham, who fought in WWII and the Korean War. As I shook his hand, he told me with tears in his eyes, “That’s the first time anyone has ever thanked me in all these years.”

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